André de Roland, born 8th August 1623, and died – we don’t yet know when. We can be fairly sure it was before 1669, since he is spoken of by the surviving narrators in the past tense, but I suspect it was a great deal earlier. He is certainly not the kind of man one would expect to grow old.
André is the character at the centre of the Chevalier series, and from the opening remarks of both Jacques and Stefan it seems to be his life the Abbé Fleuriot is looking to research. It’s therefore ironic that in one sense we know less about him than any of the others. Because he does not speak for himself (except in two short letters) we are totally dependent on the views of the other characters, all of whom see him differently.
Jacques’ protectiveness makes him always see André as smaller and younger than he is, as we see from his constantly referring to him as ‘the boy’. Jean-Marie, by contrast, sees him as bigger and more heroic than he can possibly have been. Père Gérard Benôit is torn between a desire to present him as the noble Sieur of Dax and an honest knowledge of the shortcomings in a pupil he used to teach. Stefan sees him for much of the time as an aristocratic, naive fool. Colin sees him only as he affects himself – a local Seigneur who might or might not be useful. Carlos sees him as a threat to his beloved Capitán, and definitely the inferior gentleman of the two. Anne is more observant than any of them, but her emotions make her judgment quite as suspect as the others.
Certain qualities, however, everyone agrees on: the temper, the obstinacy, the courage, the idealism, and the unusual skill with the sword. The following extracts from the unpublished material have been chosen because they at least hint at all these characteristics, as well as showing the ignorance of the lives of ordinary people with which André begins.
The passage they’re taken from comes very early in the original manuscript, when André is still only twelve years old, and Jacques takes him into Occupied Dax for the first time. For those familiar with the book, it would fall chronologically after the incident of the soldiers’ cart but before August when Colin tells us André ‘couldn’t come into Dax’. Judging from his behaviour on this occasion it isn’t hard to see why.
Mme Thibault came out of the store with old Mlle Tissot just as we passed. They both stopped when they saw us and made this funny little bobbing movement like starting to curtsey then suddenly remembering they mustn’t. I got used to that a lot over the next year or so, it’s a wonder the soldiers never noticed. They must have thought all the women in Dax had really bad rheumatism in their knees and kept sagging at odd moments.
I heard the boy give a little snort, and turned to see him trying not to laugh. I looked back at the soldiers, sort of anguished in case they noticed, but the boy didn’t seem to care whether they did or not. He seemed suddenly brighter, excited, happy, like no peasant you ever saw, especially in a village full of thieving soldiers. I told him to look more depressed, and he said ‘Yes, all right, Jacques,’ but he was amused at me and even that showed...
And of course the bakery is full of soldiers, because it often bloody is. Down one side of the wall there’s a load of people I know standing waiting patiently, but everywhere else is like a sea of black and red. I drag the boy quickly towards the wall among our own people, who all duck their heads and furiously pretend not to notice him.
There’s a stir towards the counter, and I can see Mme Aubert carrying a great wooden tray of loaves high above her head. The smell is almost unbearably gorgeous, with the warm air of the ovens wafting it all over us. The loaves are white ones, wheat flour with golden crusts, and all our eyes follow the tray as it’s passed over the heads of the people nearest the counter to some soldiers at the back, who just take it and go out. They don’t even say anything. They certainly don’t look like paying. The boy watches them go, then looks at the other soldiers still waiting. His mouth has tightened into a thin line.
More trays are coming, but these are barley and rye loaves, and our own people press forward. Mme Moreau steps back to let us go in front of her, but I shake my head furiously and almost shove her back into place. André hasn’t moved. He stands and watches our people struggling to get past the soldiers to buy the flat black loaves, and his eyes are hard.
More white bread comes, and the last soldiers jostle their way to the front to collect it. One barges right into Mme Charpentier, sending her stumbling back against the wall. The boy’s forward in a second, his hand making this sudden movement towards his hip, right where his sword would be if I hadn’t taken had the sense to take it off him. I’m after him fast, then Mme Charpentier looks up and sees what he’s trying to do. Her face sags in terror, and she’s shaking her head at him in frantic pleading, no, please don’t, please no. The boy subsides, but I can feel his shoulder trembling under my hand. I daren’t even look at his face. The soldiers are clumsy with the trays, and knock a whole load of the rye bread off the counter onto the floor, where people start stooping at once to retrieve it. A trooper steps back on top of one of the loaves, the heel of his boot stamping right into it, but Mme Charpentier bends and picks it up anyway. The boy turns abruptly away.
‘Let’s go,’ he says, and I don’t need telling twice, I’m out of there, and the morning air suddenly tastes sweeter and cleaner than the smell of the bread. The boy stands next to me, leans his back against the bakery wall, and closes his eyes.
...So I squash down my doubts and walk with him the last steps to the mouth of the alley beside Le Soleil Splendide, and just at that moment a pair of soldiers come muscling down it like it’s theirs. To them it is, I suppose, but it’s bloody rude all the same, and as they go past, one of them spits, and it lands on the boy’s shoe. He starts up at once, and a kick isn’t enough this time, neither’s a hand on his shoulder, I grab tight hold of his arm and force him back beside me till they’re by. But he’s breathing heavily through his nose, and I know it’s really got to him.
‘Bastards,’ he says. ‘That was deliberate.’
‘It wasn’t. They just didn’t see us, that’s all.’
‘How could they not see us?’
‘Because we’re just peasants. We’re invisible.’
He stares at me, then scrapes the spit off his shoe with the other foot.
‘No-one’s invisible,’ he says.
The boy we’re seeing here certainly looks like someone we’d expect to die young.